No one covered the fig tree

Song:  Musica Siciliana(Sicilian Music) 

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    This was given to me by another Sicilian and it seems that the writer hopes that this little bit of history will be enjoyed by the readers and relate to it as many have.


    I was well in to adulthood before I realized that I was an American. Of course I had been borne in America and had lived here all my life, but somehow it never occurred to me that just by being a citizen of the United States meant that I was an American. 


    Americans were people who ate peanut butter and jelly on mushy white bread that came out of plastic bags. Me? I was Italian. For me as, I am sure, for most second generation Italian, children who grew up in the 40's and 50's, there is a definite distinction to draw between Us and Them.  We were Italians, everybody else, the Irish, Germans, Poles, they were "mericans".   There was no animosity involved in that distinction, no prejudice, no hard feeling, just...well...we were sure that ours was a better way. For instance, we had a bread that was crusty and was brought to us steaming hot every morning by the bakers. They were part of the many peddlers who plied the Italians neighborhoods. We would wait for their call, their yell, their individual distinctive sound. We knew them all and they knew us.   The Americans... they went to the A & P for most of their foods... what a waste.


    Truly, I pitied their loss. They never knew the pleasure of waking up every morning to find a hot, crisp loaf of Italian bread waiting behind the screen door. And instead of being able to climb up on the back of the peddler's truck a couple times a week just to hitch a ride, most of my "mericani" friends had to be satisfied by walking with their mamas to the store. When it came to food, it always amazed me that my friends and classmates only ate turkey on Thanksgiving Day or Christmas. Or rather, that they only ate turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce. Now, we Italians, we also had turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce, but only after we had finished the antipasto, soup, lasagna, meatballs, salad and whatever else Mama thought might be appropriate for that particular holiday. The turkey was usually accompanied by a roast of some kind (this was just in case somebody walked in who didn't like turkey) and it was followed by an assortment of fruits, nuts, pastries, cakes and, of course, the homemade cookies sprinkled with little colored things.


    No holiday was complete without some home baking; none of that store-bought stuff for us. This was where you learned to eat a seven course meal between 1p.m and 4:30p.m.; how to handle hot chestnuts and put tangerines wedges in red wine.


    My friends ate corn-meal mush, we did too, but only after Mama covered it with gravy, sausages and meatballs.   We called it polenta... now it's a gourmet food... Mama must have known it all the time.


    I truly believe Italians live a romance with food. Sunday was the big day of the week. That was the day you'd wake up to the smell of garlic and onion frying in olive oil, as it dropped into the pan. Sunday we always had tomato sauce and macaroni. Sunday would not be Sunday without going to Mass. Of course, you didn't eat before Mass because you had to fast before receiving communion. But, the good part was that we knew when we got home we'd find hot meatballs frying, and nothing tasted better then newly fried meatballs and crisp bread dipped into a pot of hot tomato sauce.


    There was another difference between us and them. We had gardens, not just flower  gardens, but huge gardens where we grew tomatoes, tomatoes and more tomatoes. We ate them, cooked them, jarred them. Of  course we also grew peppers, basil, lettuce and squash. Everybody had a grapevine and a fig tree, and in the fall everybody made homemade wine. Then, when the kegs were opened everyone argued over whose wine tasted the best. Those gardens thrived because we also had something that our American friends didn't seem to have. We had grandparents. Of course, it's not that they didn't have grandparents; it's just that they didn't live in the same house or on the same block.


    Their presence wasn't that noticeable. We ate with them, we visited them at least 5 times a week. I can still remember my grandfather telling us about how he came to America as a young man, on the "boat." How the family lived in a tenement and took in boarders in order to make ends meet. How he decided that he didn't want his children, five sons and two daughters, to grow up in that environment.


    All of this, of course, in his own version of Italian/English which I learned to the delight of our grandparents, and God forbid we didn't understand quite well. So, when they saved enough money, and I never still can figure out how, they bought a house, that house served as the family headquarters for the next 40 years. They would rather sit on the back porch and watch their garden grow. When they did live for some special occasion, they had to return as quick as possible... after all, "nobody is watching the house."


    I also remember the holidays when all the relatives would gather at my grandparents' house and there would be tables of food and homemade wine. The women in the kitchen, the men in the living room and the kids... kids everywhere. I must have a thousand cousins, first cousins, and second cousins and some friends who just became cousins, but, it didn't matter. Then my grandfather, sitting in the middle of it all, his pipe in his mouth, his fine mustache trimmed, would smile, his dark eyes would twinkle as he surveyed his domain, proud of his family and how well his children had done. One was a cop, one was a fireman, the others had their trades, and of course there was always the rogue about whom nothing was said. The girls? They had all married well and had fine husbands, although my grandfather secretly seemed to suspect the one son-in-law who wasn't Italian, but out of all of this the one thing that we all had for each other was respect.


    They had achieved their goals in coming to America: to Boston, New York, Chicago or Philadelphia. Now their children and their children's children were achieving the same goals that were available to them in this great country. 


    When my grandparents died a few years ago, things began to change. Family gatherings were fewer and something seemed to be missing. Although, when we did get together, usually at my mother's house, I always had the feeling that they were there.  It is understandable that things change. Everyone now has families of their own. Today we visit once or twice a year; or we meet at wakes or weddings. Other things have also changed. The old house my grandparents bought is now covered with aluminum siding. A green lawn covers the soil that grew the tomatoes. There was no one to cover the fig tree, so it died.


    The holidays have changed. Yes, we still make family "rounds", but somehow things have become more formal. The great quantity of food we once consumed without ill effects is no good for us anymore. Too much starch, too much cholesterol; too many calories in the pastries. And nobody bothers to bake anymore, too busy.  It's easier to buy it... and anyway... too much is not good for you.


    The difference between "us" and "them" aren't so easily defined anymore, and I guess that's good.   My grandparents were Italian-Italians, my parents were Italians-Americans, I am an American-Italian, and my children are American-Americans.   Oh, I am an American, and proud of it. Just like my grandparents would want me to be. We are all Americans now... the Irish, Germans, the Poles... U.S. citizens all.